Inspirational stories and helpful tips for visiting all U.S. national parks
by Jennifer Mitchell
The National Parks System provides an opportunity for Americans and international visitors to experience the most beautiful natural landscapes of the United States. Our national parks connect us to significant moments in our country’s history and allow us to disconnect from modern-day technology to find peace in nature. They are the perfect travel destinations for anyone looking to relax and be inspired by breathtaking landscapes, learn about nature and conservation, or get active by hiking, climbing, kayaking and biking. And because many national parks are so vast, you can spend an entire vacation exploring a park without breaking the bank.
Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly destination, an adventure with friends or an inspiring solo trek, our country’s national parks fit the bill.
Meet our national parks travel questers
The quest to visit all 61 national parks (or over 400 national park sites, including historic sites and national monuments) is certainly no small plan. We spoke with three travel questers who are in the process of visiting all 61 national parks to understand their motivations and capture their experiences.
“As a nation, we are truly blessed with extraordinary beauty,” said Paul Foster, who has visited 45 of our national parks. “Our biodiversity is simply extraordinary. And we were equally blessed with conservationists like John Muir and President Theodore Roosevelt who sought to protect them and the flora and fauna within them for public appreciation.”
Liza Mullikin Pickett and her husband, Mark, decided to take on the challenge of visiting all of the national parks on their 25th wedding anniversary, and they have been to 24 national parks so far. They had camped often with their children who are now grown, and they decided to take advantage of their more open schedules to explore the natural beauty of the U.S. “To us, America has always been a magnificent place and there is so much to see out there.”
A sense of national pride and awe was a common thread among the stories from our questers.
“We are very patriotic and love America,” said Sondra Humphrey, who has visited 16 national parks with her husband. “Not only do we want to see these spectacular places, but our quest leads us to different regions of our country and allows us to interact with people living in these areas.”
Arches National Park, Utah
Stories from the trails
Being present for the experience and capturing memories are far more important than checking parks off a list. People who have taken on the national parks quest recall moving moments that propelled them along the way.
“When I drove through Tunnel View at Yosemite, it changed my life,” states Pickett. “I have never seen anything as beautiful and inspiring as that visit to Tunnel View and the Yosemite Valley.”
“We once drove from Yellowstone across Beartooth Highway,” said Humphrey. “We were in the Lamar Valley and saw more bison than we could ever have imagined. We also saw a wolf, bears, bighorn sheep and mountain goats. It was incredible.”
Foster too has been wowed by the wildlife found in the national parks.
“For me the best stories usually surround animal sightings,” explained Foster. “I’ve seen buffalo, elk, mountain goats, sheep, grizzly bears, eagles, manatees and more. Seeing the nightly migration of thousands of bats from Carlsbad Caverns was tremendously beautiful as well.”
And though our travel questers have a collection of wonderful stories of being moved by nature’s beauty, there are inevitably a few mishaps along the way that make for excellent stories down the road.
“When we got to Olympic National Park and were setting up our tent, we realized that we had not packed the tent poles,” said Pickett. “It was the first park of a six-park trip, and we had planned to spend many nights in the tent. We slept in our rented SUV that night. The tent company was able to overnight the poles to the hotel we were planning on staying at in Northern Washington the next night and when we checked in, the poles, thankfully, were there.”
Travel tips to help you navigate your national parks quest
Visiting 61 parks around the nation might seem like a daunting task, but our questers provided helpful tips on how to tackle this quest. Start by deciding how many parks you want to visit. Will you narrow it to the continental U.S., stick with 61 parks or add in national park sites or monuments? The federal government recently added two parks (the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and Indiana Dunes National Park). When additions are made, will you add them to your list or stick with your original locations? Making these decisions at the get-go will help keep you on track and kick off the planning phase.
“My one piece of advice for anyone trying to accomplish this is to plan,” states Pickett. “I would also recommend trying to see more than one park per trip. For example, there are five parks in Utah. If you are going to be near Utah, plan accordingly and try to visit them all.”
Beyond planning how you’re going to attack your quest, Humphrey recommends planning how you want to spend your time inside each park.
“You need to set realistic expectations when it comes to time management of each visit,” she explains. “Do you want to spend time exploring the parks in depth, or do you want to see the top sites in the parks? Because many of the parks are vast in size, you need a lot of time to visit and explore. Do your research ahead of time to make sure you know what you want to see.”
As important as pre-trip planning is, it’s equally vital to live in the moment and experience the park once you arrive. When you’re in one of the most majestic parts of the country, be sure to soak it in.
“Take your time” exclaims Foster. “Don’t view the journey as a collecting exercise but rather an immersion exercise. If you are visiting the park without hiking a trail, talking to a ranger or watching a sunrise, you’re missing the point. Know your goals before the trip and make sure you’re on the same page as your travel companions.”
Documenting your travels is also a very important part of any travel quest. Whether you’re writing a blog, painting or photographing the parks or collecting a memento from each park, commemorating your quest will help preserve your memories.
“We bought the Collector’s Edition Passport to the National Parks to record our visits,” notes Humphrey. “It’s divided into regions with information on the different types of sites within the National Park Service system. Instead of collecting the passport stamps at each park, we are using the blocks by each one to record dates we visited and special things about the visits.”
You can also commemorate your quest with a personalized national parks quest t-shirt from No Small Plan.
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Explore these national park resources
As Humphrey mentioned, the parks are vast and offer many sites and activities, so it’s wise to spend time researching your options prior to your trip. The National Park Foundation is a great resource for those planning a trip to our national parks. The site offers detailed information about all national parks as well as travel ideas broken down by types of adventure. The Alt. National Parks site was set up by employees of the National Park Service who wanted to provide transparency about their concerns and keep the public up to date about the status of our national parks.
Many travel books and guides for national park–dense states provide helpful starting points. Our questers recommended "Your Guide to the National Parks," by Michael Joseph Oswald as well as the works of John Muir.
Find your favorite park
Each national park offers its own experiences, and your favorites will likely be chosen based on memories formed in each. Here's what our travel questers had to say.
Humphrey: “Our favorite park so far is Yellowstone. There are so many different scenic areas to experience and so much wildlife to see.”
Pickett: “Yosemite is my favorite because it’s what started us down this path, and we have become huge fans of John Muir’s. Muir was very instrumental in getting Yosemite designated a National Park and protecting it from overdevelopment. But my mind also often wanders to the trees of Joshua Tree National Park. They are so incredibly beautiful. The same is true of the HooDoos in Bryce Canyon.”
Foster: “If pressed, I’d have to say I am absolutely in awe of the parks in southern Utah (Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches) and of course, the Grand Canyon. One of my favorite hikes ever was from the Northern Rim to the Southern Rim of the Grand Canyon.”
Whether you’re tempted to set your own national parks travel quest or just plan a trip to one or two this year, enjoy the unique experience that America's parks offer. If you’re already on your way to completing a travel quest to visit all 61 national parks, check out our new National Park Travel Quest gear, released during National Park Week. Create a map of the parks you’ve visited and apply your personalized design to a t-shirt, long-sleeve shirt or tank. And as always, share your photos, tips and stories on social with the hashtag #NoSmallPlan.
Jennifer Mitchell is a blogger, comedian, freelance copywriter and travel enthusiast.